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Renato Janine Ribeiro: There is no development without science

The new president of SBPC says Brazil lacks an awareness of the influence of research on economic and social prosperity

For Ribeiro, a highly unequal and unjust society is only partially democratic

Léo Ramos Chaves

In July, Renato Janine Ribeiro, a senior professor in the Department of Philosophy of the School of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Human Sciences at the University of São Paulo, assumed his role as the new president of the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science (SBPC). As director of evaluations at the Federal Agency for Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (CAPES), Ribeiro headed the triennial evaluations of Brazilian graduate programs in 2004 and 2007. He was appointed Minister of Education in 2015. Now, through the year 2023, Ribeiro will lead the agency that for 72 years has been an important advocate for the Brazilian scientific community. In this interview with Pesquisa FAPESP, he talks about his plans as the institution’s leader, the role of the SBPC in Brazil’s current political climate, and the fight against science denialism.

The SBPC provided an influential voice from the scientific community during the country’s post-dictatorship democratization process and in the constituent assembly. What role can it play in Brazil’s current situation?
It has a fundamental role, the defense of democracy, which is one of the basic values of the SBPC. I’ll go back in history a little bit. There was a period when scientific development was closely associated with military research. One big example was the development of the atomic bomb around 1945. But an interesting change has occurred. Science gradually moved away from the causes of war, and began taking up the causes of peace, democracy and ethics. It has become more concerned with the issues of health, the environment, and sustainability. SBPC focuses on a set of priorities: on science, on culture, on technology, health, and the environment. Democracy and social inclusion are also included in these priorities. A highly unequal and unjust society is only partially democratic. We need to ensure that all people have equal rights and opportunities. It’s something the SBPC is committed to fighting for—and will continue to fight for.

The SBPC has been in discussions with Congress and the federal government to address the issue of cuts in the science budget. How will this effort be handled under your administration?
We will be continuing the excellent work carried out by Ildeu Moreira and, before him, by Helena Nader and the other presidents, which is the work of continued dialogue. We’ve spoken with the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation [MCTI] and with the major funding agencies. We’re also in discussions with Congress. Action by the SBPC was important in getting a law passed prohibiting funding restrictions to the FNDCT [National Scientific and Technological Development Fund] budget, and we’re fighting for that law to be implemented and respected. It’s not easy. Budget matters are very complex. We do our best to find allies. For example, we support the Initiative for Science and Technology in the legislature, being led by former minister Celso Pansera. We won’t have a future without scientific research that allows us, for instance, to study our own biomes, which are exceptionally rich. If Brazil had had a funding policy for developing a Covid-19 vaccine, Brazilian scientists would have done it. Cuba, which is a country with a smaller population and a smaller budget, managed to develop vaccines.

Regarding the FNDCT, what are your expectations regarding the issue of unlocking the funding that should have come this year, but which, the way things are going, will only arrive next year?
The legal provision is that there should no longer be any funding restrictions this year, which isn’t what happened. And there’s another serious problem: part of the FNDCT funds were released as loans. The scientific world depends on non-repayable grants. If you have a significant part of the FNDCT budget that needs to be paid back, that creates a serious problem in the academic world. The same goes for innovation companies, especially smaller ones, startups. They need non-repayable funding—monies that the government doesn’t receive back—which is extremely important in developing scientific applications that have an impact on the economy.

One of the most powerful indicators of economic and social development is the proportion of the population that has a higher education degree

State research support foundations, such as FAPESP, in São Paulo, have played an important role in funding science, but the efforts of other agencies around the country are still inconsistent. How do we get state governments to become more supportive of science?
It’s good to remember that for a long time FAPESP was a solitary example. The second was FAPERGS, in Rio Grande do Sul. Various research support foundations were created after the 1988 Constitution, but there are states that don’t adequately fund their foundations. And there’s another question that sometimes comes up. Since in most states the most important schools are the federal universities, this ends up creating a certain irritation in governors, who resent having to invest state money in a federal university. How do we handle this? We have to show governors the benefits that having their state research foundations invest in the federal university can bring to the state’s economy. Research has no owner. It’s for the collective good and belongs to society.

Speaking of public universities, there’s a contention from the current administration of the Ministry of Education (MEC) saying that universities should serve a smaller percentage of the general population, which would benefit more from the expansion of technical schools. How does the SBPC view this issue of access to universities?
One of the most powerful indicators of economic and social development is the proportion of the population that has a higher education degree. The countries in the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development], an organization Brazil wants to join, have over 40% of their younger population graduating with a higher education degree. In Brazil, around 20% of the population is from 18 to 24 years old. We’ve grown a lot since 2000. We’ve gone from 3 million to 8 million university students, but it’s still not enough. When an individual has a better education, society is richer, and can count on a more qualified workforce. This is the point that MEC leaders perhaps have missed: the importance of higher education as a major asset in development. A much higher price must be paid when you don’t have enough education. One example here in Brazil is the shortage of doctors. If we had more doctors who were better distributed throughout the country, we could provide our people longer, better quality lives. It’s a mistake to want to restrict access to universities.

Science denialism has gained traction during the fight against Covid-19. How do you deal with this problem, and what actions do you consider necessary in the field of science education?
Denialism is a very complicated phenomenon. Like many other setbacks, this one was somewhat unexpected. For example, many people didn’t expect that England would leave the European Union or that Donald Trump would be elected president of the United States, things that happened in association with another phenomenon, which is fake news. After decades of democratic, economic, and scientific development, we’re living through an unexpected regression. Why are there so many people who are willing to deny the basic principles of science in times like these, on which their lives, and the lives of their loved ones and fellow citizens depend? Many people benefit from the results of scientific research without being aware of what it is. When someone uses an app that employs the GPS system to get around traffic, they usually don’t know that this is associated with the fact that the Earth is round. There would be no GPS without satellites circling the planet. Perhaps people would value science more if they had a clearer sense of how much they owe science. We need better science communication. This is something that was pointed out by Hernan Chaimovich, a professor at USP: we do good scientific communication, but it’s for our peers. How do we make scientific knowledge reach two priority audiences—people with lower incomes and little access to knowledge, as well as those who are making the political and economic decisions? For the low-income populace, more scientific knowledge can represent a better quality of life. But to reach them, a different type of discourse is needed.

There’s an estrangement between the federal government and researchers regarding the issue of the environment. One example was the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), which became the target of controversy by disclosing data on fires and deforestation, losing a director as a result, and now INPE faces a shortage of funding. How does the SBPC assess the damage done to ecological and environmental research in Brazil?
It’s serious. As one of the first actions of the current board, shortly after being instated, physicist Paulo Artaxo—the vice president of the SBPC—and I paid a visit to INPE to offer support. We went to São José dos Campos to talk to their general director and vice president about the importance that the SBPC attributes to INPE and how crucial it is for Brazil. Long-term climate forecasting essentially depends on the institute, and ignoring the science could be extremely costly, even if not immediately so. Just look at the risk of water shortages and electrical blackouts that we’re experiencing. This situation was announced in advance; there was information about it. Why hasn’t the government taken steps to deal with this?

Perhaps people would value science more if they had a clearer sense of how much they owe science

During your visit to INPE, what was your impression of the institution’s problems?
The institute lost a large number of employees; it previously had 2,000 and I think it’s down to 700 or so now. Their satellite launch sector is one of the areas most affected by the loss of qualified personnel. This is quite serious. We’re talking about an institution that was built with a lot of sweat and effort, a lot of commitment and money, but I would say also with a lot of love and dedication. If INPE reduces its activities, the damage to society will be tremendous. I’d specifically point to areas such as agriculture and tourism. If you don’t have adequate climate forecasting how are you going to make plans, in terms of tourism, in terms of planting crops and raising animals?

Why, in your assessment, is the output of scientific production more significant than the industrial sector’s capacity for innovation? What are the obstacles to generating more wealth from the knowledge produced?
I followed the intensive efforts of the CNPq [National Council for Scientific and Technological Development] during the 1990s and the Ministry of Education in the 2000s, with the sense that federal agencies and universities had more contact with the business world. I can say that there was, on the part of the government and the scientific community, a lot of momentum in this direction, for example with the so-called Lei do Bem, [a set of tax incentives for R&D] which encourages innovation. But there is still a lack of communication. There’s not always enough effort on the part of the business community for the dialogue to take place. The university bias, which once existed, has decreased substantially. But the solution to this depends on more leadership from the federal government, especially from the MCTI, as it was in the past.

The annual meetings of the SBPC have already played a relevant political role in defending science, but many researchers prefer to give more attention to the congresses held for their areas of professional expertise, which concentrate more on the advances within each particular discipline. Do you have plans to revitalize these annual meetings? Did the virtual meetings during the pandemic provide any new lessons?
It’s not really like that. The annual meeting isn’t a scientific congress, it’s not a space to present original research. It’s a meeting where the community discusses scientific production and priorities in social and political terms. The SBPC doesn’t produce science, its role has to do with the social significance of science. This is what spurs us to promote round tables, conferences, short courses, science for young people, and technology exhibitions. SBPC meetings, especially when they happen outside the major cities, play an important role in the cities and regions where they’re held. Sometimes, they attract more people when they’re held outside of São Paulo or Rio. The objective of the annual meeting isn’t to replace scientific congresses in the areas of chemistry, physics, or sociology, but to provide the arena for physicists, chemists, and sociologists to discuss the perspectives of their different scientific areas. I’d stress one point that seems crucial to me: Brazil still lacks awareness of the decisive role that science plays in development. Today, economic development no longer happens without science as part of the equation. This is one of the points that the annual meeting must emphasize. As for the virtual meetings, they were improvised because that’s what the whole world had to do during the pandemic. The two annual meetings we held virtually worked well. We intend for the 2022 annual meeting to be in person, but we’re going to include virtual elements. Any and all activities at the annual meeting will also be streamed in real time, so that those who either can’t or don’t want to attend can participate. It must also be said that people have a need to be close to each other. So, both the annual meeting and our scientific congresses will be in person, otherwise people will never actually get to know each other.

In September, SBPC promoted the Virada da Independência [the Independence Day bicentennial celebrations coming in September 2022] with a series of virtual activities. How was that experience?
I proposed this idea to the board and in less than 20 days everything was organized. We quickly asked the scientific societies and regional secretariats to participate, and to send content. It worked. The SBPC has an excellent technical and administrative team. Our goal was to hoist the flag and say that without education and science, there is no independence. And to enter our 200th year of Independence highlighting the important role that science must play in society. From now forward, we’re going to conduct some activity every month aimed at preparing for the 200th anniversary of Independence and the centenary of the Week of Modern Art, another important celebration.